Born in Lucknow in 1948, Meher Afroz is an internationally applauded artist and prolific printmaker. She completed her undergraduate degree from the Government College of Art and Craft, Lucknow in 1971. After her graduation, she migrated to Pakistan and chased her dream of becoming an accomplished artist. Despite the lack of art facilities in Karachi, financial support, difficulties faced as a migrant, Meher out-shined other artists and proved herself the extra-ordinary artist of her generation. Due to her commendable and irreplaceable contribution to the art of Pakistan, Meher was awarded Pride of Performance by the Government of Pakistan in 2014.
In this interview, Meher talks about her art journey and how migration affected her as an artist. She also decodes the meaning of despair which is also the title of the book published in her honor by Niilofur Farrukh.
Maheen Aziz: How do you feel about the book ‘ A beautiful despair’ that has covered your art trajectory?
Meher Afroz: Unfortunately, in Pakistan, there is a lack of documentation and archiving neither writers nor institutes have ever come forward to contribute to such activities so this book is a big contribution.
I am thankful to Niilofur for her commendable and tireless efforts to do justice to the book; from visuals to the choice of articles and the way it is put together. Interestingly, this is not like any other artist auto-biography but she has invited writers who have critically seen my work from a different lens. This book will stay even if I don’t and will tell people about my journey so they will be able to know who Meher Afroz was. I am very grateful to everyone; especially feel blessed that a friend has done this for me. It’s an outcome of my honest relationship with Niilofur and a symbolic gesture of all the achievements.
MA: When people talk about your work they always connect it to your migration from India to Pakistan…
Meher A: Actually 1971 was a crucial time in Pakistan’s political history and that was the time when I migrated from India. Coming on a visit was different as I could not get a chance to know the culture much especially the artist community. Nonetheless when, at the age of 22, I migrated and started my struggle as a resident and an artist in Pakistan I knew no one and no one knew me that was a reality check. At the same time, my family was also on their own trying to settle in because they also migrated from India. There were many challenges; I had to help my family financially, get myself settled. I couldn’t go back to get any support or help so it was like a swim or sink situation here. I dreamt of going to Delhi after my graduation which remained a dream. It was a big misfortune at that time as my life got completely changed. My father told me to look forward and scrutinize my potential. I would sometimes think that my dreams were only dreams so my aim was but gradually I could see the shine within the darkness. It was a very personal journey and I realized with time that one has to be honest with oneself. Introspection is extremely mandatory which changes you. The time was crucial as I faced displacement, felt abandoned and lost but it changed things for me in the best way possible. It gave me confidence and there was no greed for popularity or fame. When one finds the true meaning of life then fame and popularity seem meaningless.
So the migration aspect and the sadness attached to it is always in my conversation that is why when people talk about me they talk about this phase of my life which they also observe in my work.
MA: You incorporate beauty with melancholy or despondency, there is this emptiness in your body of work yet it’s visually alluring..
Meher A: It was always there because I lost a huge part of life when I voyaged to Pakistan. I was sad about losing my peers and there was a relentless battle that I was fighting so it came naturally in my work. I could never open up about my unhappiness to anyone because I was new, young and didn’t know how people would react.
After migration, the first challenge was to know the country so I started traveling. I traveled to Sindh from where Sufism came into my work. Later, I joined the arts council to meet students to feel at home. Karachi was barren regarding print making although there were artists who were selling their work there weren’t facilities available for technical work or print making.
The other challenge was to set up my own studio within a limited budget. I would wander around the whole city in search of rollers, ink, and etc. I was starting everything from scratch. Luckily I had produced many prints before coming to Pakistan which helped a lot in terms of exhibiting them. After seeing my work in my first exhibition, the renowned printmakers of that time like Zahoor Ul Akhlaque, Ahmed Khan, Ghulam Rasool instantly knew that I was a well-trained printmaker and it gave me recognition and eased my ways.
There were different experiences on different stages so the despair and loneliness came from there and it stayed.
MA: You never wanted to or could never share the sadness that was inside you but now people know about it through the works that you have produced.
Meher A: Yes. I would like to elaborate on it. This also comes from the sessions of Majalis that we attend in Muharram which continues until 2 and a half months every year. There is complete modesty and discipline that people learn and follow. The connection with Karbala and being a part of Majalis teaches you values, manners and ethics which are invaluable and the sadness engraves in you.
It’s easy to die but to convey a message with full responsibility. Even after 1400 years, the message of sacrifice in Karbala is passing on to the next generation flawlessly and without any error. And this taught me to become a witness of my system and be truthful to myself to convey the message honestly as an artist. You think that read and research help you evolve. Introspection is not easy either because when you know that you are not a good human when the truth unveils brings despair and sadness which is a constant struggle with me. When you have wisdom then you have a passion and I firmly believe that you will lose your wisdom and knowledge if you do not apply it to yourself. It’s the same as if you study medicine and don’t practice it then the knowledge will be gone because practice makes the theory stronger.
MA: Why you chose to migrate?
Meher A: It was not my decision. My father was an emotional person and he wanted to come to Pakistan. He was back and forth between India and Pakistan in 1948 but finally stayed in Pakistan along with my family. Then in 1971, my father asked me to pack and come. I came to Pakistan very much later even my result was not announced. Coming to Pakistan became a Hobson’s choice.
I was living with my uncle in India which was again a reason I could not freely enjoy my college life because I could not think of staying till late during my thesis as my uncle would get worried about me. When I was in India, my family was in Pakistan, then migration opened another chapter of life.
MA: Did you feel it was unfair to you?
Meher A: At that time, yes, but later I realized that it happened for good and taught me what people learn in decades. Even people here welcomed and supported me as an artist that is why I have become Meher Afroz. The only thing I regret is the time and energy that was wasted during my migration, in making my identity as an artist. I think I could have utilized that time in producing more work in fully facilitated studios in Lucknow. My colleagues and friends were stopping me when I was moving. This is something that I think if not had happened I could have become a more accomplished artist but then later I realized that if I was in India today I would have faced the mentality and challenges that now Muslims are facing in India.
I am grateful for a lot of things like just in two years, I made friends like Niilofur Farrukh who became my family with time but I still miss my childhood friends.
MA: Your work speaks about woman strength and about feminism as well, how do you link this aspect of your work with your life? And are you a feminist?
Meher A: I have a different vision and perception about it which I believe is more profound. I have raised feminine issues in an unusual way as I looked into the particulars and profundity of it but I am not a feminist. In the 80’s women painters like Sumbul Aziz, Nahid Raza, Mansoora Hassan, Salima Hashmi were painting on subjects like divorce, domestic violence, and these subjects were floating on the surface. I was among them but my idea was completely different.
MA: How do you see feminism then?
Meher A: I believe that women are naturally powerful and have their rights. The only problem is that we haven’t educated our females. I was astonished to know that girls are forcefully being married to the holy book Quran to resolve the property issues. There is a contradiction in what we believe, practice and preach. We can take examples from Islamic history. After the incident of Karbala, the biggest responsibility to convey the message to the masses and give the first speech in the house of Yazid was fulfilled by a woman, Bibi Zainab a.s; a woman who was emotionally shattered, humiliated, whose sons and brother was brutally martyred and she is handcuffed with no chador on her head yet she had so much strength and power to stand on her feet, speak the truth, praise the blessings of Allah because she understood the meaning of life. She was satisfied that she has fulfilled her responsibility with complete honesty.
Each sentence of Bibi Zainab’s speech holds unfathomable meanings and I still fail to unveil the layers of the meaning of her speech. I see my responsibilities from a different angle; I should be conveying knowledge not reporting issues. I should be talking about the causes and not just about the disputes. My father would always say that woman is a precious creature that is why she is protected. There is only shame attached to injustice and old traditions like dower which is so deeply rooted that people educated from abroad follow these rituals and traditions.
The aspect of feminism comes naturally in my work but that does not mean that I am the flag bearer of that mindset. I am speaking about morals and ethics and the responsibilities of women in my work.
MA: I think artists from your generation are more knowledgeable and humble but younger artists have more celebrity attitude. Do you agree?
Meher A: I agree. Artists have now divided in class also. There is a huge gap between the artists of two generations because we don’t have documentation, archiving and museums through which these young artists would know about the big names of the art world like Shakir Ali. And when they come back from abroad after completing their Masters or Bachelors they think they are the only ones representing the art fraternity. Today there are facilities available which were not there in our times. The pattern has completely changed now. We are humble because we have been through minor to major struggles like establishing an art studio, producing work in bulk to making our voice in the art scene. Our struggle was not only to get a show in a gallery or get in covered in a newspaper, it was more than that.
MA: Urdu poetry and verses in your work carry a meaning or a message if we look at the works like the Poshak series, Mask series, and Amulet series…
Meher A: I have used poetry and Urdu verse as a symbol to unveil the true meaning of it. My work is loaded with Urdu verses and meanings. They are actually critiquing the societal issues which I deciphered in these series. Poshak series reflect the perception of judging human identity through their clothes, Amulet series is an extension of our cultural thoughts and how we see the beauty in it and cure of all problems. This series comments on social as well as personal issues. When you read poetry, you get to know that the poet is hinting towards the addiction of truth and love of the divine power which we don’t understand and think about or dig deeper meanings.
MA: Do you remember them by heart or search for them to put them with your work?
Meher A: I used to remember but now I don’t (laughs). So when I read poetry, books or pieces I pick words and which becomes the essence of my whole series. ‘Naqsh’ series explains the meaning of the word itself and how intriguing a pattern could be.
MA: You left India and migrated to Pakistan, lived and prospered here, today students are going abroad to study arts and teach there. How do you see that?
Meher A: We have a history but it’s not recorded. We had many artists whose work is not documented or cataloged. It’s good that the artists are going abroad and making waves such as Shazia Sikander who has explored the miniature medium in a different way and it was praised all around the world.
When one is attached to the roots then the work they produce is praise worthy and reflects honesty. The work Shazia Sikander has done has made a whole generation ready to further study and explore miniature.
MA: What is your message for the young artists who see you as an inspiration?
Meher A: Information is important. The young artist should look back at the artists who have made history in the arts. Lack of information will definitely affect the performance and they won’t be able to start a healthy debate within the arts or through their art. The art history of Pakistan should be very well understood to become a successful artist.